What Belongs

Jill Kolongowski

My father doesn’t live in our house anymore. He’s moved in with his girlfriend, who is also his next-door neighbor, and the house sits empty. Because he’s not there, others want in.


One day he calls and tells me the basement is filled with bees. We are not great at talking on the phone — we are best at small talk, the weather here: still warm, yes; the weather there: the rainiest summer in a long time; whether the Spartans will be any good this year. So I think I’ve misheard him. Bees in the basement? His voice stretches high and incredulous. Bees, hundreds of them.

Our basement is unfinished (see how I write “our,” though I’m now 32 years old and haven’t lived in my childhood home since I left at 18), cement poured into a hole in the earth, only small rectangular windows near the ceiling, which we never opened. The walls were a foot thick, good for a tornado shelter, the most solid place I would ever be, too cold, no good for a beehive. He was exaggerating, I thought.

Then he sends me a picture, and he’s wrong — there are not hundreds, but thousands of bees. Dead on the floor, all of them, their bodies a thick carpet. For some reason I’d assumed the bees were alive but this was so much worse. These bees had gotten in and had been trapped, all of them — without my father there, no one to open a door or a window — and died, bodies upon bodies. My father vacuumed them up.

Later, someone robs my father. He isn’t there, so they came with a pickup, took the big TV, his golf clubs. In the basement they couldn’t get the TV off the wall, the concrete still solid as anything. My father’s house is on a dirt road nearly a mile off the main road, and even the biggest main road is only 25 mph. In the woods and perched up on a hill, in the summer the leaves are so thick you can hardly see the house from the road. The people in the pickup planned ahead, sat somewhere and watched, waited. Laying in my bed as a kid, the house was so quiet that I strained my ears for noises — creatures or child abductors — that never came. With my father gone now, our house was no good, it seemed, at keeping things out. When I asked my father how the thieves got in, he says, “I left the door unlocked.”


My husband and I buy our own house in 2019. The first night we sleep there I expect to feel disoriented and lost, but it’s the same bed as always and my body knows it’s home. But now something is slamming near the window, now a low bass rumbles the floor, now something grinds metallic. The noises make no sense. We don’t know what anything is. But these sounds are alive, buzzing; these sounds are ours, a new language we get to learn.

Someone drives a loud engine past our bedroom window most mornings at 7 a.m. Sometimes the sounds feel like a threat, like bees in the basement, like this place does not truly belong to you. But one day I hear gentle acoustic guitar music playing, and I go from room to room, peeking out windows and trying to figure out which of my neighbors is playing the music. It isn’t a playlist at all — from my office I find the source of the music: a man holding a guitar walks slowly down the street, playing and singing softly to himself, until he walks around the corner and out of sight. I felt like this was for me, only me, but of course that’s not true — just a man, at home in his neighborhood, and me in mine. But we still always lock the door.


On the first night in our new house, we cleared a month’s worth of spiderwebs off the deck and backyard play structure. Inside, I kept walking through spiderwebs — they seemed stretched across every doorway, and we found empty webs in nearly every window. A spider the size of a fifty-cent coin crouched above the upstairs hallway. I know house spiders are not dangerous and in fact are probably good, to keep other, worse insects away. But still. When I see the big spider, I cannot stop myself from backing away and telling my husband to deal with it, please, please. My husband hates killing spiders, so he catches them gently in a cup, and sets them free outside. Recently, though, I’ve learned that most house spiders have evolved to live indoors and that putting them outside probably kills them, like setting a captive animal free. I do not know this when, a few days later, I find another spider in our bedroom, a fast one, and I chase it along the baseboard until I catch it. This is our house, I tell it, and throw it out the second-story window.


The bees in my father’s basement are probably carpenter bees, xylokopos/ξυλοκὀπος, Greek for wood-cutter, who tunnel into wood. In the winter, they don’t die. Instead, many carpenter bees will return to their childhood homes where they were born. Perhaps, even while my father turned the heat low and went to live with his girlfriend, even the wood in the basement ceiling might have felt better to the bees than the freezing Michigan winter. Perhaps they left their burrows briefly and then were trapped and didn’t know where to go. Maybe, for them, the basement was home.


My father calls again to tell me he sold the house. When he tells me I realize I’d thought, perhaps selfishly, this house would always be there to return to. The feel of the house is as old as a reflex, and now someone else will be there to discover the way the living room floor creaks right in the middle, the fog and condensation between the windowpanes when the sun comes at last to melt the snow, the way the wind in the bare tree branches in the winter sounds like a river, the comforting cold and solidity of the basement no matter the season. This was my home, and now there’s nowhere to return to. Where do I go?

The answer is obvious. There is no returning; there is only now. Every few days my husband or I come home and are struck again: this is our house! we say. I say it walking up the brick sidewalk, I say it on the creaky floorboard next to the kitchen, I say it with my hands touching opposite walls of the narrow upstairs staircase. Our house, our house.


I find another spider climbing the frame of our bedroom door. This time, I leave him be. Every bright morning I check on the spiderweb outside our kitchen window. This web is the size of a dinner plate, with its spokes perfectly spaced, pristine, not a thread broken. Some species of spiders rebuild their webs every day, but every morning this one is here, and I like to think it’s safe enough to stay put. I think, this place can belong to you, too.

At our housewarming party there are twenty pairs of shoes heaped by the door and I love the mess, twenty times saying come in. In the backyard our friends’ children collect lemons from the tree. Higher up in the tree bees buzz from branch to branch. Spiderwebs, too, between the branches, but the kids don’t seem to notice the webs, and ask to go back again and again for more lemons. In the kitchen we slice one open to taste for the first time, and one friend eats the whole thing raw — it’s so sweet, he says.


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